“Neither cities nor places in them are unordered, unplanned; the question is only whose order, whose planning, for what purpose?”— Peter Marcuse
The 24th, 25th and 26th of June, Stockholm hosted a conference organized by UN Habitat, PPS –Project for Public Spaces– and theAx:son Johnson Foundation, called Future of Places. It was the first of three lectures culminating in 2016, with the meeting of Habitat III, whose ultimate goal will be to contribute to a new urban agenda that concentrates on places and people. Why the change of perspective? The convening organizations are convinced that the focus should change from building architectural objects to places, if we are to overcome the challenges posed by cities; today, the systems responsible for the construction and management of cities -both legal and professional- are adapted to an industrial reality of the 20th Century that focuses mainly on technical systems, while the 21st century approach should focus on human interaction.
Therefore, Stockholm was the scenario in which the foundations of this new agenda were laid. The dynamics of the event were simple; experts, policy makers and academics, attended by invitation and in a few cases by self-application, so they could become influential to their national and local representatives attending Habitat III, guaranteeing a more fundamental role of public space in this new urban agenda.
From the very beginning, the conference tried to demonstrate that the simple access to public space is not enough, issues such as planning, design and management are also important. The first two days were dedicated to case studies and research, focusing mostly on two very valid but different contexts: first, the good practices, mainly under the term of placemaking (coined by William H. Whyte, and disseminated by PPS 40 years ago) -regeneration of parks and squares, government strategies, policies, etc.- and second, on the serious needs of developing countries and their inability (formal) and ability (creative) to react to them, with cases from India, Argentina and Venezuela.
From our Latin-American perspective, we really appreciated the interventions that alluded to the “other” spaces in contexts away from the developed world. The opening presentation by Urban Think Tank, made it clear that urban designers need to “unlearn” the assumptions of the developed world, as the global truth is closer to the realities of developing countries, “let’s face it, western development is not the rule, but the exception “, for her part, Shipra Narang Suri, vice president of ISOCARP commented that protests and riots are a reflection of the lack of opportunities to get the most of urban life, that people -who are citizens all the time, not just consumers- need free services in public spaces, and finally that over-landscaping and over-beautification should be avoided at all times, as they represent a barrier for people; Suzanne Hall, professor and researcher at LSE Cities, shared her research in London, in a very specific context of the city -very different to the usual representations of London- concluding that a multilingual vocabulary is needed in order to understand contemporary public space.
Very few presentations made reference to the fact that the public sphere has changed and we must work with what is out there, not to facilitate the development and construction of new spaces, but to understand its crisis and resist it. Although citizens from over 50 countries attended the event, the lack of diversity and representativeness of the audience was made clear by the third day, which culminated in a first draft of a Charter of Public Space. Some criticism and comments came out, noting that if these forums will determine the future of public space -and it must be democratic, inclusive and open-; there is definitely a breakdown in the process.
Interventions and case studies, highlighted the need for a common language, which requires first defining the underlying problem; defining it, is probably more complex than it seems; it is not simply a problem about lack and / or deterioration of parks and squares, but a crisis of the public sphere that is manifested in the spaces and the dynamics of the city. We should start questioning ourselves, why is it easier and more attractive today to retreat into the private sphere? Why have we permitted the multiplying construction of such scenarios that exacerbate the problem and widen the gap between “the public” and the private spheres? Answering these questions would definitely be confusing, considering that in many countries, especially from the global North, public spaces are developed and managed by private entities, and private spaces function as public space (malls), while in the rest of the world, we continue to import such models, represented as models of progress and development.
This series of events definitely opens the discussion to interesting places and provides opportunities to question and evaluate what has been done so far: if the crisis is in the public, should the solution not come from the collective? It allows us to reflect on how and where is that these political decisions are taken: it is probably true and valid that these are taken behind closed doors, but ideally, all people affected by those decisions should be represented in order to have a genuine change: so where are the opposing and different views? Where are the mall developers on one side and the occupiers, street vendors (…) on the other?
This first experiment in Stockholm paves the way for the next sessions; it will be really interesting to be aware of the first outcomes and to observe the direction it takes in 2014.